Toni Morrison 1931 -2019
“It’s impossible to actually imagine the American literary landscape without a Toni Morrison. She is our conscience, she is our seer, she is our truth-teller.” Oprah
Toni Morrison’s Beloved is one of the greatest American novels ever written. It garnered many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. The novel tells the story of Sethe, a former slave who escapes to Ohio to finds herself haunted by the trauma of her past. It’s the best known of Morrison’s eleven novels.
“Beloved is written in an anti-minimalist prose that is by turns rich, graceful, eccentric, rough, lyrical, sinuous, colloquial and very much to the point.” Margaret Atwood.
Morrison was one of the rare authors whose novels won critical and commercial success – they made the New York Times best-seller list and were featured multiple times on Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club. She was the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
‘I wanted to translate the historical into the personal.’
Morrison read slave narratives while researching ‘Beloved’, but noted that they couldn’t say everything they wanted to say, as the narratives had to be authenticated by white patrons – ‘they had to be quiet about certain things.’ So while Morrison looked at the documents, and ‘felt familiar with slavery and over whelmed by it, I wanted it to be truly felt, I wanted to translate the historical into the personal.’
The idea for the situation in Beloved came from a newspaper article. The author read a clipping about Margaret Garner, ‘a young mother who, having escaped slavery, was arrested for killing one of her children (and trying to kill the others) rather than let them be returned to the owner’s plantation.’ Morrison makes it clear that her fictional character is not bio-fictional, not based on the autobiographical details of the real-life Margaret Garner or trying to capture her as a person… ‘I really don’t know anything about her. What I knew came from reading two interviews with her … She was very calm, she said, ‘I’d do it again.’ That was more than enough to fire my imagination.’
Though Sethe’s situation in Beloved, is inspired by Margaret Garner’s case, Morrison explains why she preferred to invent her own character – ‘the historical Margaret Garner is fascinating, but to a novelist, confining. Too little imaginative space for my purposes. So I would invent her thoughts, plumb them for a subtext that was historically true in essence, but not strictly factual in order to relate her history to contemporary issues about freedom, responsibility, and women’s ‘place.’
‘…if I had known all there was to know about her, I never would have written it. It would have been finished, there would have been no place in there for me. It would be like a recipe already cooked. What I really love is the process of invention.’
In the novel, the main character is not, in fact, the mother who commits the act, but the child who was killed – a ghost called ‘Beloved’. ‘The figure most central to the story would have to be her, the murdered, not the murderer, the one who lost everything and had no say in any of it.’ The ‘herculean effort to forget, would be threatened by memory desperate to stay alive.’
Morrison on Writing….
‘…. one has to work very carefully with what is between the words. What is not said. Which is measure, which is rhythm and so on. So, it is what you don’t write that frequently gives what you write its power.’
Morrison discussed her writing practise in a Paris Review interview – ‘I tell my students that the most important thing they need to know is when they are their best creatively. For Morrison that meant writing in the morning. A habit she acquired as a single working mother writing at dawn before her children woke. (She worked as an editor for Random House.) ‘I’m very, very smart in the morning, and everything is clear. By noon it’s over. Then as the day wore on, I got dumber and dumber.’
Morrison wrote her first drafts ‘straight through’ on yellow legal pads with a number 2 pencil. ‘I work very hard in subsequent revisions to remove the writerliness from it, to give it a combination of lyrical, standard and colloquial language. To pull all these things together into something that I think is much more alive, and representative.’
Characterisation… ‘you can’t let them write your book for you.’
If Morrison became unsure or stuck while writing a novel, she would check-in with her characters…. ‘I have the characters to go to for reassurance. By that time, they are friendly enough to tell me if the rendition of their lives is authentic or not.’
She was a great believer in letting the characters speak for themselves on the page…. ‘I try really hard, even if there’s a minor character, to hear their memorable lines. They really do float over your head when you’re writing them, like ghosts or living people. I don’t describe them very much, just broad strokes. You don’t know necessarily how tall they are, because I don’t want to force the reader into seeing what I see. It’s like listening to the radio as a kid. I had to help, as a listener, put in all of the details. It said “blue,” and I had to figure out what shade. Or if they said it was one way, I had to see it. It’s a participatory thing. (NEA Arts Magazine )
Asked in The Paris Review – Do you ever feel like your characters are getting away from you, out of your control? Morrison answered – ‘I take control of them. They are very carefully imagined. I feel as if I know all there is to know about them, even things I don’t write – like how they part their hair. They are like ghosts. They have nothing on their minds but themselves and aren’t interested in anything but themselves. So, you can’t let them write your book for you.
“The writing is — I’m free from pain. It’s where nobody tells me what to do; it’s where my imagination is fecund and I am really at my best. Nothing matters more in the world or in my body or anywhere when I’m writing.” Toni Morrisson
Toni Morrison’s novels are available as e-books and audio from Borrow box. (Which includes Beloved read by Toni Morrison herself!)